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The Grafenegg Festival: A programme as eclectic as its quirky castle venue

Alexandra Coghlan takes a trip to Austria to sample the delights of this year's Grafenegg Festival, curated by the pianist Rudolf Buchbinder.

Schloss Grafenegg, the sixteenth century castle which hosts the festival.
Schloss Grafenegg, the sixteenth century castle which hosts the festival.

The Grafenegg Festival
16 August - 8 September 2013

England might have given the classical world country house opera, opening up the gardens and gazebos of our finest stately homes to picnicking music-lovers each summer, but Austria has gone one better. The Grafenegg Festival, taking place annually in the beautiful Danube valley of Wachau, raises an important question: why content yourself with a country house when you could have a castle instead?

And what a castle it is. Schloss Grafenegg’s origins may be sixteenth-century, but it was the nineteenth-century that transformed it into what it is today – an architectural Tardis. August Ferdinand, Earl Breuner-Eneckevoirth, had a vision for a home not bounded by period of style but embracing all in a historical riot of crenellation, castellation and wood-panelling. From neo-renaissanance to Biedermeier it’s all here, in a Gothic fantasy come to life. The castle itself is at the centre of the Grafenegg estate which has been home to the festival since 2007. As audiences have grown so has the festival, building the futuristic outdoor amphitheatre the Wolkenturm (“Cloud-Tower”), a new indoor auditorium, and converting the original stables into yet another concert-hall.

And the music has grown at the same pace. Curated by Rudolf Buchbinder, Austria’s finest pianist, this year’s festival artists include the Vienna Philharmonic, Valery Gergiev, Charles Dutoit, Diana Damrau, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Janine Jansen, Semyon Bychkov and the Labeque sisters. It’s an impressive line-up by anyone’s standards, and discovered in this quiet, storybook-fantasy of a valley in Lower Austria it has the additional appeal of context. Vienna and Salzburg may have their cultural treasures, but they also have crowds and tourists. Grafenegg, by contrast, is a peaceful kingdom indeed.

Part of the festival’s appeal is the variety of its programme, reflecting the eclectic interests of the castle’s original founder in the breadth of the programming. In one weekend we went from the epic spectacle of Mahler’s Third Symphony, to the irreverent virtuosity of the 12 Cellos of the Berlin Philharmonic (programming Burt Bacharach alongside Purcell) and a perfectly-formed chamber recital juxtaposing the familiar and the unknown.

The Mahler, framed in the dramatic lines of the Wolkenturm, was a chance to hear both Grafenegg’s resident festival orchestra – Vienna’s Tonkünstler Orchestra – and exciting young Colombian conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada, who will be making his debut with the LSO next season. The Tonkünstler have grown tremendously in recent years, finally stepping out of the shadow of their Viennese orchestral competition. Performing this symphony was a major milestone in their development. Aided by the Vienna Boys Choir and the women of the Wiener Singverein they conjured a vivid vision of the composer’s bucolic rhapsody.

The strings in particular brought a warmth and connectedness to their playing that was striking in an outdoor acoustic, and if woodwind couldn’t quite match them for unanimity they did yield some strong soloists, particularly the off-stage post-horn who more than met the demands of the third movement. Mezzo soloist Elisabeth Kulman was perhaps an unusual choice for Mahler, favouring an unusually straight tone, but it projected beautifully in the space and the clarity helped throw focus back to the all-important texts.

From a Mahlerian symphony orchestra we downsized the next night to just a cello section. The 12 cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic have been playing as an ensemble in their own right for over 40 years and have the showmanship to prove it. More than just a novelty act, their combination of lighthearted humour and virtuosity makes them the King’s Singers of the instrumental world, capable of playing any amount of Burt Bacharach without becoming cheap. The ensemble have commissioned throughout their history, creating a huge catalogue of works for the current group to draw on. Here, we saw them add another to their collection in the form of Brett Dean’s 12 Angry Men. Grafenegg’s 2013 composer in residence drew heavily on the Sidney Lumet film for a work which sets up a narrative framework for an exercise in musical structure and development. Each assigned a character, the cellists are heard to persuade, argue, agree and interact in phrases charged with rhetorical intent. Dean’s writing prevents his concept becoming too literal, and the densely contrapuntal result is one that begs for an immediate second-hearing.

It’s rare that we get to hear a single instrument used in so many different ways, but by limiting themselves to just cellos this ensemble are forced to explore the limits of conventional textures and techniques. An arrangement of Ravel’s Pavane pour une Infante defunte drew on gauzy harmonics to mimic (or even outdo) the delicacy of the original, while Boris Blacher’s Blues, Espagnola und Rumba Philharmonica transformed the players into a single strumming guitar, pulsing with percussive energy. But it was Juan Tizol’s reworking of Duke Ellington’s Caravan that demanded most of the players, drawing an uncanny impression of vocal or trumpet scatting from the strings.

For pure musical pleasure however it was the simplest, smallest concert of the festival that prevailed. Combining the young British Doric Quartet with Brett Dean (seen here both as composer and violist), it paired Dean’s own Epitaphs with Brahms’ Quintet No. 2 in G major. Dean’s melodic language is inscrutable, demanding rather than desiring multiple listens, but as miniature soundscapes his Epitaphs offer plenty to a first-time audience. The other-worldly ostinato of the opening, the fractious counterpoint for all five instruments in II, the shifting clouds of harmonic colour in V, all lingered in the ears as sonic fragments.

The Doric have a technical assurance that leaves them completely free to shape the intent of their music, and the Brahms – thick with the addition of the extra viola – offered us the chance to hear their musical ideas as well as see their considerable skill. Theirs is an ardent, engaged sound well-suited to this repertoire, but they also proved themselves capable of finding more restraint for the Adagio. Gradually thawing out during the Allegretto, they grew to a pacy climax in the Vivace, bounding to the finish-line.

In Grafenegg, Buchbinder has created a festival as eclectic as the castle venue itself. You might be confronted or horrified by your encounters here (whether architectural or musical) but you won’t be indifferent. Austria may be a by-word for musical conservatism, but there’s nothing middle-of-the-road about this quirky, endearing festival.